Political Science

I loved the Michael Hofman review of Stephen Parker’s Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life in the 15 August 2014 Times Literary Supplement.  Every paragraph of that review is a gem and Hofman calls the book perhaps the greatest literary biography he has read.  I’ve ordered my copy.

Here is one part of that review, toward the end, which caught my eye:

I’m not really sure what the case against Brecht is.  That he treated women and co-workers badly?  That he played fast and loose with the intellectual property of others, but was litigiously possessive of his own?  That he wrote no more hit shows after The Threepenny Opera?  That he failed to crack America?  That he wouldn’t denounce the Soviet Union?  That he was drab and a killjoy?  That he had it cushy after settling back in East Germany in 1949?  That he was consumed with his own importance?

Perhaps the Parker book will change my mind, but for now file under “All of the Above.”

Addendum: Here is another superb Michael Hofmann review.

 

When do economists matter?

by on August 21, 2014 at 2:05 am in Economics, Political Science | Permalink

Christopher D. Johnston and Andrew Ballard have a new paper on this neglected topic, the abstract is this:

Given an increasing presence in the public sphere, what role do economic experts play in shaping public opinion on economic issues? In this paper, we examine the responsiveness of American public opinion on five economic policy issues to real information regarding the distribution of opinion on these issues among economists. We also examine the extent and role of trust in economists within the public. On average, we find meaningful changes in public opinion in the direction of expert consensus when citizens are given explicit information about expert opinion. However, we also find heterogeneity in citizen responsiveness across issues, such that aggregate opinion change is smaller on symbolic policy issues relative to technical ones. Further, on symbolic (but not technical) issues we find that citizens use judgments of the trustworthiness of economic experts in a motivated fashion, as a means of reinforcing prior opinions.

That is a little bloodless and the paper is also poorly written and organized but nonetheless it is important work.  Here is one very interesting bit:

…strongly left-leaning citizens are about 12 percentage points more trusting of economists than strongly right-leaning citizens.

This part of (sort of) encouraging:

…all three groups of respondents show greater trust than predicted after exposure to consensus information.  This pattern is consistent with the notion that exposure to highly technical, means-oriented issues makes one’s lack of knowledge salient, and perhaps engenders greater respect for experts…

The full paper is here, I would say start reading on p.16 and return to the beginning later on if you wish.

I did not know this idea was under consideration:

Los Angeles city leaders are considering a lottery system to reward citizens for casting a ballot in local elections, in a measure to combat low voter turnout that officials and outside observers say could be a first for any U.S. municipality.

The Los Angeles Ethics Commission voted 3-0 on Thursday to recommend that members of the City Council move forward with the lottery idea, either by putting it before voters as a local initiative or by adopting it on their own, said commission president Nathan Hochman.

The commission discussed a number of possible ways for the lottery to work, including the use of $100,000 to be split into four prizes of $25,000, or 100 pots of $1,000 for lucky voters who win the drawing, Hochman said.

The story is here, hat tip goes to long-time MR correspondent Daniel Lippman, who now is working for Politico.

File under The Polity that is California.

Josh Barro reports on Rhode Island, arguably the least polarized state in the Union:

Wonder what Washington might look like if it were less polarized? Just look to Rhode Island. The political scientists Boris Shor and Nolan McCarty analyzed state legislative voting records from 1996 to 2013 and found Rhode Island had the least ideological difference between the typical Republican and Democratic lawmakers.

It’s common for Republican officials in heavily Democratic Northeastern states to be moderates. What makes Rhode Island stand out is the number of conservatives within its Democratic legislative supermajority. The median Democrat in Rhode Island was more conservative than in all but 13 state legislatures, scoring directly between Georgia and Indiana and far to the right of those in Connecticut or Massachusetts.

This kind of ideological scrambling — one might say incoherence — has made it possible for Republicans and Democrats to find common ground and work together. But does it actually lead to desirable public policy? Nobody I spoke with in Rhode Island seemed inclined to hold up their state as a model of consultative governance for the rest of the country.

“We are unique state with a unique governing culture – and I would submit, a uniquely bad governing culture,” says Senator Hodgson. Of course, it’s not unusual for a member of a permanent minority party to criticize his state’s governance. But Rhode Island is a notably poor fiscal and economic performer, and observers across the political spectrum tend to talk about Rhode Island as a state that has fallen behind its richer neighbors.

The full story is here.

He writes:

…the cost of bureaucracy is in general vastly overestimated. Compensation of workers accounts for only around 6 percent of non defense federal spending, and only a fraction of that compensation goes to people you could reasonably call bureaucrats.

And what Konczal says about welfare is also true, although harder to quantify, for regulation. For sure there are wasteful and unnecessary government regulations — but not nearly as many as libertarians want to believe. When, for example, meddling bureaucrats tell you what you can and can’t have in your dishwashing detergent, it turns out that there’s a very good reason. America in 2014 is not India under the License Raj.

In other words, libertarianism is a crusade against problems we don’t have, or at least not to the extent the libertarians want to imagine.

And:

And what all this means in turn is that libertarianism does not offer a workable policy agenda. I don’t mean that I dislike the agenda, which is a separate issue; I mean that if we should somehow end up with libertarian government, it would quickly find itself unable to fulfill any of its promises.

You can read his further points here.  In fact I agree with many of Krugman’s observations in what I thought was overall a useful post.  It’s just that I think a lot of other viewpoints are living in a fantasy world too.

That said, Krugman grossly underestimates the costs of government regulation.  For one thing, government regulations are a major obstacle to the infrastructure improvements which Krugman is so keen on.  To use Krugman’s own pick of the cherry, he wrote another post defending the DMV for its on-line service and reasonable wait times.  It was not always so, but on top of that let’s not forget the Virginia DMV just tried to put Uber and other ride-sharing services out of business (Krugman himself wrote rapturously about Uber a few weeks ago and how it held out the promise of a society with diminished car ownership in some locales.  I say bring it on.)  Fortunately the regulators were temporarily overriden in this case, although they may reemerge as an obstacle in a subsequent bargain.  More generally, taxi license and medallion requirements are a disgrace in many places, and who is in charge of that?  Typically the DMV.

You might also ask whether DMVs underregulate where they ought to regulate more.  The number of road deaths in the United States each year is so high as to be scandalous.  I am not sure how much this problem can be pinned on the DMV (how easy is it to get very bad drivers off the road through legal/constitutional means?), but still it is hard to argue that in absolute terms these agencies are overseeing a successful regime of road safety.

“There are two things which a democratic people will always find very difficult – to begin a war and to end it.”

– Alexis de Tocqueville

If a captive soldier is known to be in a certain vehicle, Mr. Amidror said, it is permissible to fire a tank shell toward the engine of the car. “You for sure risk the life of the soldier, but you don’t intend to kill him,” he said.

Asked whether it was morally acceptable to risk a soldier’s life in this way, Mr. Amidror said: “You know, war is very controversial. Soldiers have to know there are many risks in the battlefield, and this is one of them.”

That is for Israeli soldiers and it is called the Hannibal Procedure more generally.  The subtext is that an Israeli soldier captured by the enemy can end up being traded for a thousand or more imprisoned Palestinians.  The persistence of the kidnapped state for the soldier may create an intolerable situation for the Israeli public, more than would seem to be the case for a deceased soldier, and arguably it damages morale for future soldiers to a greater extent.

Not everyone likes the Hannibal Procedure:

“The procedure is morally flawed,” said Emanuel Gross of Haifa University, an expert in military law and a former military judge. “We have no right to risk the life of a soldier only to avoid the payment for his return from captivity.”

Instead, Mr. Gross said, Israel ought to stand more firmly against the inflated demands of the captors.

I wonder how the opinion of the median soldier or soldier-to-be on this policy compares to the opinion of the median Israeli citizen.  Our philosopher readers will also note the connection of this debate to the longstanding conundrums over whether a person ceasing to exist can be said to harm that person, a topic discussed by Derek Parfit among others.

The full story is here, interesting throughout.

China will construct a “Chinese Christian theology” suitable for the country, state media reported on Thursday, as both the number of believers and tensions with the authorities are on the rise.

China has between 23 million and 40 million Protestants, accounting for 1.7 to 2.9 per cent of the total population, the state-run China Daily said, citing figures given at a seminar in Shanghai.

About 500,000 people are baptised as Protestants every year, it added.

There is more here, via the excellent Mark Thorson.  It should be noted that this story can be given a number of different interpretations.  Here is a related article.

Putin’s Plan A: Long game, squeeze Ukraine, force deep federation, formalize Russian influence & primacy in SE

Plan B: Invade

The link to that tweet is here.  There is more from Ian here.

I find it worrying that Putin is suspending food imports from parts of the West.  (Note that the text of the ban may be deliberately ambiguous.)  Commentators are criticizing the economics of such a move, but I think of this more in terms of Bayesian inference.  Long-term elasticities are greater than short.  Under the more pessimistic reading of the action, Putin is signaling to the Russian economy that it needs to get used to some fairly serious conditions of siege, and food is of course the most important of all commodities.  Why initiate such a move now if you are expecting decades of peace and harmony?  Or is Putin instead trying to signal to the outside world that he is signaling “siege” to his own economy?  Then it may all just be part of a larger bluff.  In any case, Eastern Europeans do not take food supply for granted.

That campaign is one of the more notable events going on in a busy and event-rich world, so it feels remiss not to cover it at all.  Here is John Minnich:

The anti-corruption campaign is one of those steps. It serves many overlapping functions: to clear out potential opponents, ideological or otherwise; to consolidate executive power and reduce bureaucratic red tape so as to ease the implementation of reform; to remind the Chinese people that the Communist Party has their best interests at heart; and to make it easier to make tough decisions.

Underlying and encompassing these, we see the specter of something else. The consensus-based model of politics that Deng built in order to regularize decision-making and bolster political stability during times of high growth and that effectively guided China throughout the post-Deng era is breaking down. It can no longer hold in the face of China’s transformation and the crises this will bring. Simply put, now that its post-1978 contract with Chinese society — a social contract grounded in the exchange of growth for stability — is up, the Party risks losing the public support and political legitimacy that this contract undergirded. A new and more adaptive but potentially much less stable model is being erected, or resurrected, from within the old. This model is grounded more firmly in the personality and prestige of the president and more capable, or so Chinese leaders seem to hope, of harnessing and managing the Chinese nation through what could well be a period of turmoil.

This does not necessarily mean a return to Imperial China, nor does it mean a return to the days and methods of the Great Helmsman, Mao. It doesn’t even mean the new model will succeed, even remotely. What it means will be decided only by the specific interplay of structure and contingency in the unfolding of history. But it is this transformation that serves as the fundamental, if latent, purpose for Xi’s anti-corruption campaign.

The full piece is here, and for the pointer I thank Jim Olds.  “Be careful what kind of anti-corruption campaign you wish for…”

There is a new paper by Helios Herrera, Guillermo Ordoñez, and Christoph Trebesch and it has a striking result:

We show that political booms, measured by the rise in governments’ popularity, predict financial crises above and beyond other better-known early warning indicators, such as credit booms. This predictive power, however, only holds in emerging economies. We show that governments in emerging economies are more concerned about their reputation and tend to ride the short-term popularity benefits of weak credit booms rather than implementing politically costly corrective policies that would help prevent potential crises. We provide evidence of the relevance of this reputation mechanism.

The NBER version is here, there are ungated versions here.

Which is to say that while Cowen’s point about the global picture is both interesting and correct, his political stance is backwards. It’s not fans of Capital in the 21st Century who are pushing nationalism as an alternative to plutocracy, but its detractors. And though the recent politics in the US Congress have been driven by the somewhat odd sequence of events around the arrival of unaccompanied minors from Central America, the underlying pattern runs much deeper than that.

I don’t have an “he says exactly that” quotation to pull from Matt’s piece, but I believe he is saying I (or someone?) should be a Progressive instead of a “conservative economist” as he calls me.  The article is interesting throughout.

My framing of course is different.  It is not about who are the best people, but rather which are the best set of positions.  Just to summarize, I generally favor much more immigration but not open borders, I am a liberal on most but not all social issues, and I am market-oriented on economic issues.  On most current foreign policy issues I am genuinely agnostic as to what exactly we should do but skeptical that we are doing the right thing at the moment.  I don’t like voting for either party or for third parties.

Shares in Gazprom, a company that made $32bn in net income last year, trade at only 2.6 times forward earnings.

That is from FTAlphaville.

Sober Look has the numbers, for instance:

The area’s CPI is now below 0.5% on a year-over-year basis. Yesterday we saw German CPI hit new lows (see chart) and Italy’s inflation rate is now hovering just above zero.

What is the most economical model here?  The ECB invested in building up a lot of credibility in some areas, such as price level stability, but that means less credibility when it comes to pushing higher inflation.  So to get two percent inflation, perhaps the ECB has to genuinely and truly seek four percent inflation, because a big chunk of the market won’t believe they really want four percent.  Four will get them to two.

The ECB in fact may be wishing for two percent price inflation and getting…less than that.  Which in turn conditions market participants to doubt the commitment of the ECB to the rates of price inflation which it claims to be seeking.  The ECB and the citizenry can get stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecies equilibrium, yet without requiring a standard liquidity trap.

I don’t by the way think of this as a time consistency problem.  The ECB doesn’t want to be in a position where it is genuinely shooting for four percent inflation, even if that means it will end up imposing only two percent on the Germans.  They are still caught with their proverbial pants down and their internal culture of inflation love would be seen as unacceptable and illegal too.  Yes, the ECB is selfish, and law-abiding as well, as its charter mandates price stability as the goal.

And you know what?  When “selfish” and “law-abiding” point in the same direction, that is very often what you will get.

Eduardo Porter interviewed me in addition to his column, here is one excerpt:

What about other consequences of inequality? There is evidence that it hurts mobility, sapping young men’s incentives to succeed. Some have suggested it corrupts our political system and could fuel social unrest.

We know very little about what income inequality tends to cause in politics. We do see that income inequality is up considerably and crime is down considerably. We do know that older societies, as we are becoming, tend to be more peaceful and stable. We also see that a rising middle class often leads to political instability, such as in Thailand or Turkey or Brazil or for that matter the United States in the 1960s. Many young American men may be experiencing a crisis of confidence these days, but the problem lies in the absolute quality of their opportunities, not the gap between them and Bill Gates.

And this:

If we are looking for a remedy, a greater interest in strict religions would help many of the poor a lot — how about Mormonism for a start? Just look at the data. Many other religions prohibit or severely limit alcohol, drugs and gambling. That said, this has to happen privately rather than as a matter of state policy.

Here is the whole thing.